Speech by Minister Bussemaker at 'Skills for a lifetime, towards a futureproof VET'

Speech by Minister Bussemaker at the conference 'Skills for a lifetime, towards a futureproof VET' in Amsterdam on 16 February 2016.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome all.

Commissioner Thyssen unfortunately could not make it here today – she will address you shortly by video.

A special welcome to Mr Detlef Eckert of the European Commission.

We are here at the former naval dockyards: along with the Maritime Museum, the beating heart of the EU presidency. Back in the 17th to the early 19th century, this part of Amsterdam was the domain of shipping. Mast makers, ship builders, painters and carpenters worked here every day on three-masters, gunships, and later, on ships of iron. The shipping school, very near here, offered the first secondary and higher vocational training courses in Amsterdam.

If the craftsmen of those days were to visit Amsterdam's port today, there is little they would recognize. Industrialization and the second machine age have changed the nautical trade beyond recognition. Old jobs have disappeared, new ones have replaced them, and traditional jobs now often require new sets of skills.

Today we will focus on those skills in all segments of vocational education, because we want to set course 'Towards a future-proof Vocational Education'. And that is sorely needed, for the changes taking place in technology and society today are going so much quicker than in the past.

It is impossible for us to predict what the world will be like 20, 30 years from now. What we do know for sure is that jobs will disappear in the future, too. The World Economic Forum recently predicted that seven million jobs in trade and industry will disappear in the next 5 years alone. Still, millions more will replace them – new jobs that we currently know nothing about. And we also know that traditional jobs will change and require new sets of skills.

These developments will have a huge impact on craftspeople and other skilled workers, and the skills required will go far beyond basic technical and professional abilities. They will include flexibility and digital skills. But also: a spirit of enterprise and problem-solving skills. And of course empathy.

Robots are being used in healthcare more and more for routine work. And to provide companionship to elderly people suffering from dementia. But we still need the hands-on efforts of people to calm distressed dementia patients with serious games or other techniques. We need to teach these kinds of skills to our young people, but also to the professionals already in the workforce.

Equipping citizens to respond effectively to a rapidly changing society is a key priority of our European Presidency. And education has an important role to play in this regard.

This is why the European Commission, and Commissioner Marianne Thyssen in particular, will present a new EU New Skills Agenda later this year. I expect that this agenda will focus on demographic trends and changing labor market needs, but also on mass immigration into the EU. And I would advocate taking a broader approach to the new skills needed.

Education not only prepares young people for the labor market, but also for full participation in a democratic society. A democratic society that is increasingly respectful of the differences between people.

Those differences were accentuated in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, but also following the more recent attacks in Paris and the events in Cologne. And this puts a heavy burden on education, where young people from different backgrounds encounter one another on a daily basis.

This is why we need a broad skills strategy that links knowledge to the twenty-first century skills that I mentioned, and to civic skills. To forming your own opinion. To understanding other people’s opinions, thoughts and feelings. To engaging others in dialogue. To debate. To critical thought and reflection.

Here in the Netherlands, the government and social partners are working with the OECD to develop a skills strategy that will emphasize the broad approach to skills that I just mentioned.

This involves an important task for secondary vocational schools, too. Just think of more intensive education on the principles of human rights and good citizenship. And the value of international programs, which help young people to expand their world by crossing borders.

This brings me to today's program, which covers internationalization as one of the three themes. However, before I discuss this topic, I wish to take this opportunity to emphasize the unique value of vocational education. Craftsmanship is like the oxygen that fuels society. It is of vital importance, yet so self-evident that you only notice it when it's gone. Because that’s when everything collapses.

This is why we must highlight the importance of craftsmanship and vocational education. The Skills Competitions – at the national, EU and global level – are a hands-on way to do just that. The European Commission is also a proponent of the uniqueness of vocational education, which should certainly not be seen as a second-best alternative to higher education.

Additionally, 'vocational education and training' must of course have its own distinctive content.

This brings me to the 3 themes of this conference.

The 1st theme is on 'flexible solutions in a changing labor market'.

Here in the Netherlands we are looking for ways to make our education system more responsive. So we've started an experiment in which institutions from different sectors can take components from various qualifications and merge them into new vocational training programs. After all, many future professions will be the result of interaction between sectors.

The healthcare sector, for example, is becoming increasingly reliant on technology such as remote care, health apps and new equipment. And the agricultural sector has a growing need for employees who are proficient with robots, drones, sensor technology, precision farming and GPS. In this experiment, an educational institution can work with businesses to create a new and customized training program. Other EU member states are working on similar projects. Germany has its 'Wissenfabrik' in which 121 companies are involved in a variety of VET programs that meet high quality standards. Great Britain has fostered such cooperation at regional and sectoral level in the Computing & IT courses at Nescot college.

This brings me to the 2nd theme of the conference: 'Working toward a culture of life-long learning'. Those currently in the workforce must also be prepared for a more complex future. Companies have an important role to play in this regard by fostering a culture of learning that gives people the scope to try new things. A culture that makes continuing education and retraining possible. The government can work on developing a transparent, flexible training infrastructure that enables customization.

For example, the Netherlands Center for Innovative Craftsmanship for the Rotterdam process industry has not only created a full-scale petrochemical plant, but it also has a fully-functioning control room, where psychologists supervise simulations of high-stress situations. It is an innovative 'training factory' where the ‘blended learning’ concept is put into practice. During the conference we will focus extensively on partnerships between government, industry and education.

The 3rd theme is on 'mobility in vocational education', both within Europe and beyond its borders.

I already mentioned it: studying abroad not only builds professional expertise, but it also teaches young people that the world is much larger than their own familiar environment. This is important for young people in all forms of education beyond secondary school.

The secondary vocational education sector would do well to focus on greater cooperation in border regions, in response to the needs on the regional labor market.

The Erasmus+ can make this possible, and more schools should sign the VET Mobility Charter.

Furthermore, the Council has stated that – ideally – six percent of vocational students should study abroad. Figures show that most EU member states have difficulty meeting that target even halfway, even if we include privately financed international mobility in the statistics. This presents a clear opportunity as we head toward the mid-term evaluation of the Erasmus+ program in 2017.

This brings me to my conclusion.

I hope that this conference will provide food for thought for the EYCS Council meetings of February 24th and May 30th of this year.

I hope that this conference will enable us to jointly develop practical tools for use in educational institutions throughout the EU.

Many parties from the secondary vocational education sector in the Netherlands have worked hard to give shape to today’s programme. I am very grateful to them for all they’ve done.

I would like to emphasize the importance of keeping administrators and managers actively involved in policy at the European level. And today especially I wish to underscore the importance of keeping our teachers involved too. As a first step along this path, the results of this conference will be recorded in a document entitled 'Stepping stones towards a future-proof VET'. This document can be used in the debate on vocational skills taking place in the EYCS Council.

Finally, I would like to mention another group that is involved in this conference, our vocational students. At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the craftsmanship that was practiced right here in earlier times. But today, too, you will notice craftsmanship all around you.

Vocational students from a number of Dutch schools are your hosts and hostesses today. They are responsible for the delightful floral arrangements and they will be sharing their international experiences with you. You will be seeing more of them at this evening’s dinner. I cannot express how immensely proud I am of them.

I wish you all a productive and informative conference, and of course a very enjoyable stay in Amsterdam!